Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone begins with a baseball game of all things. A young pitcher named Finney nearly strikes out the opposing team’s star hitter, Bruce. In the next scene, Bruce is abducted and the film kicks into gear. Speculation echoes through the halls at school. There are more questions than answers. Finney’s sister Gwen begins to dream of black balloons. A pall hangs over everything. Curfews are shortened. Rumors are spread on the playground. Every kid wonders if maybe they’ll be the next victim of the kidnapper the media is calling The Grabber.
And then one day, Finney is not home for dinner.
When he regains consciousness, he’s in a dank basement with a small bathroom and a stained mattress. The high window remains just out of reach. The only other item in the room is a mysterious black phone.
“That hasn’t work since I was a kid,” The Grabber offers before demanding that Finney put it down. For the moment, he obeys, but it will figure into the narrative far more than he anticipates.
At its heart, The Black Phone, which is based on a short story by horror writer Joe Hill, is a survival tale. Most of it unfolds in a single setting as Finney alternately plots his escape and cries in despair. He has never stood up for himself. Not to his alcoholic father, not to the bullies on the playground. Not to anyone. That has to change if he's going to make it out. The voices on the other end of the phone that sometimes rings say as much in their brief exchanges with Finney.
Desperation resonates in every line. If there is one takeaway, it is this: we’re never as alone in our anguish as we imagine ourselves to be, and sometimes victory is built on the backs of the defeated. Winning takes coming to terms with all the losses that have come before and deciding to go on living, even when the only light in sight comes from a begrimed window too far overhead to be useful.
While The Black Phone undoubtedly has some supernatural elements (the phone itself seems to be a kind of portal whereby The Grabber’s victims can communicate with Finney), it is mostly an examination of the darkness that lies within us.
It is a simple film but is profound in its simplicity. It is raw, unflinching, unfortunate, a real portrait of ugliness. But there is hope on the other side of the line. And that is worth holding onto.
Compare Derrickson’s masterpiece with David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future and it’s clear how simple films with enough depth of character hit, while more complicated ones with too many threads to untangle fall flat.
Crimes of the Future stars Viggo Mortensen, Lea Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart. Ostensibly, it is about a future where human evolution has been kicked into overdrive. The ability to feel pain is being lost, and surgery has become the new sex. Bodies are cut open in macabre art performances, new organs fetishized. A second plot revolves around people who can no longer tolerate food as we know it. They must consume plastics instead.
The two plotlines eventually converge. When an autopsy is performed on a young boy whose mother killed him when she found him gnawing away at the trashcan ,questions begin to surface about where the ethical lines should be drawn.
This film is daring and raises some important questions. The future described feels simultaneously far off and close at hand. The ideas it proposes are intriguing, disturbing, and sometimes out of left field. I laughed awkwardly at several scenes, sometimes noticing that others around me were doing the same. We were all attempting to stifle our response to what can only be described as absurdity. Maybe this is what Cronenberg was going for.
I have struggled to like this film because of its complexity. It is too avante garde, the threads too disconnected from one another. The characters seem to be hapless victims of systems. No one quite strikes the viewer as human. There was simply too much going on to facilitate more than a superficial connection. For a movie that details routine and sexualized surgery by anyone who can wield a scalpel, that lack of connection is glaring.
While I can imagine that perhaps our lack of connection with any of the primary players is meant to mirror the lack of connection they themselves feel in this strange new world where only penetration by a blade is sufficient to satiate, it remains problematic. If I can’t connect, I’m going to naturally be less receptive to your ideas.
Many make the mistake of believing that horror is complicated. These films remind me that the opposite is true. Good horror, horror done right, horror that truly chills, is so simple as to be profound. It is the mysterious stranger down the street. It is an abductor of children. It is our own thoughts and the absence of light. All the things we take for granted that we don’t have to face. Derrickson succeeds in reducing the horrifying down to its core components. Cronenberg makes the mistake of believing that more intricacy makes for a better story. But his characters are strangers in a world we can’t quite imagine well. Derrickson’s and Hill’s imagining of Finney and Gwen and all the other brave kids of The Black Phone, could be happening right now. Down the street from where we live. To people someone loves, misses, and wishes they had gotten to say goodbye to.